If, like me, you have always loved the spaghetti western for its graphic violence, cold-hearted anti-heroes, greasy bad guys, Mexican bandits, quirky plots, jangling scores and psychedelic visuals, then visiting the original sets in Almeria, southern Spain, may seem to be a Mecca of sorts. Well, think again.
Carved among the picturesque valleys and spattered with catci as if the landscape was that of a porcupine, lies Mini-Hollywood. This vacuum that claims to be the pivotal site where the well-known spaghetti westerns were made is open to question. Indeed, this minute site that immediately consumes eighteen euro just to enter through its saloon doors does indeed resemble the western movie and captures a degree of atmosphere with stores, sipping station and cop shop. Also, for thirtsy souls after a day’s killing, it’s hard to decline a whisky in the bar (at 5 euro a pop) with can-can girls strutting their stuff on stage. Excellent, you may say as you climb on to your steed for the sun-baked sands of Almeria. Not so fast, mos amigos. Mini-Hollywood is a money pit where the cash from your pocket is syphoned faster than greased lightning.
Yes, the poster museum is a highlight where original Italian theatrical posters for “Django,” “Companeros,” “Death Rides a Horse,” “Day of Anger” and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” rest proud with Euro trash such as “A Town Called Bastard.” And, if you want, you can dress as a cowboy or native Indian – to part with more of your silver dollars for the privalege, of course. And I’d have to admit that I was thrilled to see two lovely Spanish teenage girls dress as slinky can-can girls even if their father gave me the eyeball. But what the hell, I was having a good time and he wasn’t.
You can buy a range of hand cannons from the Navy Colt Cap and Ball as seen in “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” and Jesse James’s favourite, the nine-inch Smith and Weston revolver. But the sons of b*****s won’t sell you blanks as they disdainfully shake their heads at the Limey gringos. Such replica firearms will set you back around forty to fifty-five golden pounds. (Even the Spanish customs could not say no to a silver-plated pistola when my amigo tried to smuggle it through, despite a grilling interrogation.)
There’s a gun show that seemed to thrill people waving away their euros, and the atmospheric views of Almeria’s sun-baked desert do scream western all’Italiana! For those with an appetite, a restaurant is available with a bland menu. If you were to expect old-fashioned Wild West chow such as “real” baked beans roasted in spices and honey, generous spare ribs dripping with sauce and jet black coffee all prepared on an open log fire, forget it – look elsewhere, hombre. All you’ll get are chips, hotdogs and burgers: no chili here (you would think Mexican fare be an option, but sadly not).
The whole experience is frustrating in the sense that Mini-Hollywood is a missed opportunity. In what could have been an attractive homage to the spaghetti western, it is instead a tourist trap, dedicated to take your lire, with little or no reference to the movies shot there. I wanted to embrace the sets of the classic macroronis knowing that Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef had once stood, but no. Even lesser but enjoyable spaghettis such as “Blindman” are ignored for a more mainstream stance: it’s as if the Italian westerns are deemed an inferior product to that of John Wayne’s six gun.
For the spaghetti western fan, it’s an odd experience: on one hand, you’re stomping in the clay footprint that was the spaghetti western but you have no idea as to what movie was shot where. It’s a lucky dip. Want to see where “Django” was lensed? “Sabata”? Forget it. Leone would be turning in his grave. Hell, Miles Deem would be, which is saying a lot. What remains is a toy town that gives a standard generic notion of the western with no specific sense of the films that were made there.
Mini-Hollywood is over in a flash of a pan: no more than twenty minutes of your life. The people behind it know it. As a consequence, a zoo has been incorporated in the middle of the complex. Look at it like this: you’re searching in vain for something that may have been shot for “A Fistful of Dollars” but end up looking at a sodding monkey chewing pitifully on bamboo. Or a panther losing its marbles behind bars.
Before I climbed on to my steed to trot out into the sunset never to look back, I couldn’t help notice another low-grade ghost town offering more of the same, this time a car from “Mad Max.” I was excited but the sons of bastards can’t fool me as I know it’s a rusting hulk from Guiliano Carnimeo’s Italo/Spanish Mad Max clone, “The Exterminators of the Year 3000” (a wonderfully daft ‘cheapos apocos’ from the early 1980s). So there you have it: a missed opportunity.
Was I glad to go? For £500 in a luxury villa and car for ten days, it wasn’t a bad deal and the South London posse lived it large. But like cheap wine, Mini-Hollywood left a sour taste in the mouth, and besides, no one called me “a son of a bitch,” “dirty gringo” or sipped from a bottle of tequila. Nice Spanish girls, though.